The Caterer
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Geoffrey Harrison

21 September 2006

Overall ranking: 59 (new entrant)

Contract caterer ranking: 14

Geoffrey Harrison is the managing director of Harrison Catering Services, a medium-sized contract caterer that he founded in Thame, Oxfordshire in 1994.

The privately-owned family business majors in the education sector, serving both state and independent schools. It has also built up a presence in the business and industry market.

Harrison, a trained chef, places the emphasis on fresh food that is prepared and cooked on site. The group's offering ranges from five-star hospitality and deli bars to coffee shops and grab-and-go outlets.

Geoffrey Harrison - Career guide
Geoffrey Harrison trained as a chef between 1962 and 1965 before joining Bateman Catering Organisation as a sous chef for the ICL account in Stevenage, where he rose to chef-manager.

He joined Gardner Merchant (now Sodexho) as catering manager of Ford's Dagenham plant, followed by the Ford of Europe headquarters in Warley.

From 1976 he was in charge of 29 contracts as district manager for the City of London before moving to Midland Catering in 1978 as a senior manager.

Harrison joined Sutcliffe Catering Group in 1980 where he took a variety of roles - sales manager for the Home Counties and general manager of Sutcliffe Vending - before landing the job of general manager of its schools division in 1983.

By 1987 he was responsible for all the Sutcliffe school contracts and he became managing director, Fairfield Catering, which he subsequently merged with the Sutcliffe business to create a single company.

Harrison left in 1994 to set up his own company along with his brother (finance director Peter Harrison), his son Gary (who handles purchasing and craft development) and his daughter Claire (manager of client services).

Geoffrey Harrison - What we think
Geoffrey Harrison founded Harrison Catering Services in April 1994 with £230,000 in start-up funds. It is now a £30m-plus turnover business that employs 2,000 staff and serves more than 80,000 meals a day (including 60,000 meals across 335 schools).

The last 12 years of Harrison's stretch at Sutcliffe gave him a solid grounding in the school meals sector which formed the initial drive of his new company.

As general manager, Harrison opened the UK's first privatised state school meals service in the London Borough of Merton, producing 25,000 meals a week from a central production kitchen to 54 sites. At the same time, he was responsible for 15 secondary schools and a College of Further Education. He soon added 18 Buckinghamshire grammar schools (in 1984) and 32 Dorset secondary schools the following year.

Harrison Catering Services was running three school meals contracts within its first four months and its first B&I contract (with Flight Refueling in Wimbourne, Dorset) in 1996.

The group grew organically until its 10th year, when it was a £22m business running 150 sites.

In November 2003, it made its first acquisition when it bought 13 contracts (12 in the B&I sector) from Yorkshire-based O'Malleys Kitchen Restaurants which had a combined annual turnover of £2m. This came a month after its biggest education deal to date - a £3m-a-year, five-year contract with Ealing Council to provide 9,500 meals a day to 61 primary and special schools.

A personal recommendation from Rose Gray of the River Café netted Harrisons its biggest B&I contract in October 2005, a £2m-turnover contract to feed 3,200 Carphone Warehouse staff across , a £2m-turnover contract to feed 3,200 staff across five sites.

The appointment of top-notch executive chef Mark Stower, who studied under the Roux brothers at Le Gavroche, underlines Harrison's commitment cooking. A flat management structure allows chefs and managers to choose their own quality suppliers and the group's refusal to tie itself to long-term supply deals enables it pass on the benefits of market fluctuations.

Harrison noted as early as 2001 that the provision of fresh food could boost sales by up to 20% in some schools and by 30% in B&I sites.

This approach enabled Harrisons to increase school meals uptake from 47% to 58% between 2004 and 2005 at Christchurch Church of England primary school in Battersea, a contract regarded by its former caterer as commercially unviable. Similarly, the group increased meal uptake from 53% to 68% between 2004 and 2006 across 64 (mostly primary) schools in Lambeth, compared with a London average of 45%.

Geoffrey Harrison - Further information

Harrison Catering Services official website

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Jacobs Media Group is honoured to be the recipient of the 2020 Queen's Award for Enterprise.

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